Seldom has such a little-known saint had such an outsized impact on the history of Christianity and of Europe as Saint Clotilda.  I had never heard of Clotilda until I began researching for my book on the role of saints in Church history for my upcoming book, How the Saints Shaped History. Now I have great admiration for her.

Clotilda was born around the year 474 A.D., the granddaughter of Gundioc, the king of Burgundy. Gundioc was Arian, an off-shoot of Christianity that denied Jesus was divine. This is significant because many of the Germanic tribes in west and central Europe were Arian, despite the defeat of the Arians in the great Christological councils of the 4th and 5th centuries. Paganism, Arianism and orthodox-Catholic Christianity battled for preeminence in the wake of the collapse of the Roman empire in the West, and it is in this context that Clotilda played her providential role. Clotilda herself was Catholic, brought up so by her mother.

A quick geography lesson: three fifth century kingdoms controlled most of what is now France, Switzerland, and western Germany. The Franks held sway in the northern half, including the growing city of Paris. The smaller Kingdom of Burgundy was situated in the southeast, toward Italy and German lands, and included the cities of Lyons and Geneva. The Kingdom of the Visigoths stretched through much of south and southwest France and into Spain. The Franks were mostly pagan, with a viable presence of Catholics. Arianism remained influential in both Burgundy and among the Visigoths, although Catholics held a presence in both kingdoms.

After her uncle killed her parents in a power struggle in the wake of her grandfather’s death, Clotilda and her sister fled to Geneva. There they grew up in the Catholic faith. Despite her family troubles, Clotilda remained of the royal class due to her pedigree. The king of the Franks at that time was Clovis, a powerful and influential leader. He heard good things about Clotilda, this granddaughter of the former Burgundian king, and sought to marry her. Clotilda’s brother and protector gave permission and they were married in 493. This made Clotilda the queen of the Franks, and more important, one who had the ear of King Clovis, a pagan.

Clotilda was devout, a firm believer in the Catholic faith, and with great persistence, sought to draw Clovis into the Catholic faith. It took many years. They had five children, and one by one she persuaded a reluctant Clovis to allow their children to be baptized Catholic. Clovis had stubbornly remained pagan and even harbored some Arian sympathies due to ties with Arian tribes around him. But the Franks, as a people, were generally not Arian, and, due to the missionary work of a number of Catholics, including St. Hilary of Poitiers and St. Martin of Tours, Catholicism had taken some hold in Frankish lands. 

Clotilda had made headway as the crucial year of 496 arrived. Clovis reached the brink of conversion. During a battle that seemed lost, Clovis appealed to his wife’s God for help. The battle was won. Clovis relented and became Christian, bringing several thousand Frankish soldiers with him into the Catholic faith. This led to the Christianizing of the Franks from thereon. And that made all the difference.  Clovis was powerful and he led the Frankish armies to a series of victories over a number of Arian tribes, including the Visigoths. Under the leadership of Clovis, large swaths of west and central Europe became Christian. The Arian presence in Europe faded for good, and Catholic Christianity became the predominate faith. This would not have happened had St. Clotilda not persuaded Clovis to become Catholic.

Clovis died in 511, leaving a legacy of predominately Catholic lands throughout most of France and western Europe. The Franks emerged as the predominate tribe in western Europe for centuries and, providentially, were a significant means of the continued spread of Christianity in the ensuing centuries. Two centuries later, Frankish king Charles Martel would defeat an Islamic invasion force at the battle of Tours in 732, turning back an attempt to spread Islam, his son Pepin would succeed him and establish relations with the Pope, and his grandson Charlemagne would become the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800.

The process was messy, mixed with the zeal of missionaries traveling through these lands and the advance of warlords bringing their Christian faith with them by force. Virtue and sin, as so often happens in history, each played a role in the conversion of Europe from paganism and Arianism to Christianity. Even in the 30-40 years that Clotilda lived after Clovis’s death (we don’t know exactly when she died, maybe 545?) she struggled with the angst of her sons feuding over leadership and power within the Frankish Kingdom. It exhausted her and she turned from family political intrigue in her latter days to live a life of serving the poor, building churches, and quietly living out her deep faith.

So many times throughout history, someone obscure steps in to trigger a cascade of events that steers history in a direction that would otherwise not have been come to pass. Thus did Clotilda. So often in the history of Christianity, one individual, providentially raised up by God, triggers events that lead to the advance of the Christian faith. Thus did St. Clotilda. So many of us, Christian and not, have good reason to admire Clotilda’s crucial contribution to history.

1 Comment

  • Dan Clements Posted December 30, 2022 7:17 pm

    Great read on St. Clotilda as I have never heard of her. Her yes to God and perseverance in her husband’s conversion shaped history in Europe. Well done, Randy in documenting her story.

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